Body language rarely lies.
That Bess Cameron’s boss, Sal Ragusa, stood about as stiff as a totem pole set her ragged nerves on an even sharper edge. While divorce never bares its pointed teeth without pain and suffering to everyone involved, in her case, it appeared those teeth would be mortally wounding far more than her marriage.
Resigned to yet another lecture, she held up a give-me-a-second finger, punched the tape labeled “Commercials” into the deck, pressed the play button, then rocked back in her squeaky chair. “All right, Sal. Go on.”
“I’m really worried about you.” He slumped against the recording booth’s doorjamb, deliberately trying to look less concerned. Harsh light from the hall spilled across the WLUV 107.3 emblem on his T-shirt and swiped a slash across his clenched jaw. “This is the only way I know to protect you, and you refuse. When Millicent hears about your divorce . . . ”
Bess would feel the bite of the teeth. She sighed. Why did formally ending a marriage that had died and been mourned long ago conjure intense hurt that felt so . . . fresh?
Seeing little productive coming from exploring that question and certain she’d miss nothing that hadn’t been covered on countless other occasions, she let her attention drift from Sal’s lengthy monologue.
The eerie green, red, and white light emitting from the booth’s controls typically seemed familiar and comforting. Tonight, it made her uneasy, though she was enough of a pro to admit that the root of her discomfort really wasn’t the light. It was her, inside—and for a good, logical reason.
It was late, nearly midnight, and she’d had so much on her mind lately that she hadn’t been sleeping well. Big understatement there. And even though she considered self-analysis the fodder of fools for professional psychologists, Bess risked speculating on her unprofessional opinion of her current status. Diagnosis? She was physically tired, emotionally wrung out, spiritually drained, and about as sick as spit—a term she’d picked up from her friend, Maggie MacGregor—of worrying. Prognosis? Grim. From all indications, things were doomed to get worse before they got better. And exactly how much worse remained totally out of Bess’s control.
The first commercial started playing. She tapped the mute button so it’d be transmitted but not heard in the booth, then checked her watch. They had three minutes to wrap up this conversation before she had to get back on the air.
Swiveling in her chair to face her boss, who unfortunately showed no signs of being winded or of winding down and ending his lecture, she again thought he’d be ahead of the game if he’d give in gracefully to his age instead of trying to keep up with the twenty-year-olds running around the station. To her own thirty-three, Bess figured Sal at fifty—maybe fifty-five—and fighting each year showing as if it were a thieving demon. He jogged to fight a tiny paunch, lifted weights three times a week at his posh French Quarter club to avoid unavoidable muscle sag, and tinted his hair a god-awful brown to hide persistent gray. His obsession with his appearance, like his tendency to talk first and think later, was at times saddening, at times maddening, but always tolerable because the man was fair, he had a good heart, and he was loyal.
With him, Bess never ranked second.
And now she had to oppose him. She suffered a flash of regret but, needing to wrap up this session of their “Great Debate,” she interrupted. “I know you’re trying to help, but I can’t accept this kind of help. It’s . . . wrong.”
“And I knew you were going to say that. You always do.” He propped a sneakered foot against the lime green wall. “But these are the only possibilities I see of saving your job. I’ve put out some feelers on this and, as soon as she catches wind of your divorce, Millicent will fire you, Bess.”
A divorce and losing her job? Surely she couldn’t be expected to endure both simultaneously—at least not with grace. And staring financial ruin in the face didn’t do much to assist on the personal philosophy aspiration front. Bess chewed on her inner, lower lip. Why had she made aspiring to grace part of her annual, personal motto this year anyway? Foolish. Especially with her knowing the divorce was coming—John certainly wouldn’t lift a finger to stop it—and with patience still lingering on the list from last year. She’d finally given in and accepted that patience—or, more accurately, her lack of it—was destined to be a perpetual aspiration: a part of every year’s motto. But she was still working on accepting the divorce and John’s reaction to it. Now she had unwisely put herself in the position of having to strive to meet both and the threat of being fired and financially ruined too. All with grace. And all simultaneously.
The fear of failure had the recording booth seeming small and stuffy and stifling hot. It smelled musty too, and the temptation to spout off at Sal to release some tension spread like a wildfire up her throat. She swallowed it back down, where it churned in her stomach.
Well, no one had promised life would be fair. Good thing, because these days her supporters cantered in few and far between. Sal was one of her most staunch. Alienating him would be just plain foolish, and Bess Cameron was not a foolish woman, at least not in most things—aside from in choosing her spouse and in saddling herself with overly ambitious annual mottoes she regretted January second and doggedly pursued until December thirty-first.
Having heard enough of this particular lecture, she squeezed the padded arms of her chair. Air swooshed out, hissing between her fingers. “I’ve been counseling callers at this radio station for more than six years, Sal. I’m a psychologist. I’m not superhuman or ‘Wonder Woman,’ and I certainly never claimed to be perfect. And I’m not committing felonious acts in my private life, I’m just getting a divorce.”
“Just getting a divorce?” Sal lifted an arm. “A divorce is more than pertinent to your professional life, Bess.”
Her temper again flared. And again, she tamped it, chilled her voice to cool. “Can you, or our esteemed owner, Millicent Fairgate, make a marriage work alone?”
Sal lowered his gaze to the tile floor. “No. No one can. But—”
“I see.” Bess crossed her chest with her arms. “Why then am I expected to be able to do it?”
“Because you earn your living counseling people on marriage and relationships. We don’t.” He muttered a grunt. “You know Millicent is going to take the position that if you can’t make your own marriage work, then—”
“I know how I earn my living.” Bitterness burned in her stomach. Given half a chance, she could have made her marriage work. But John hadn’t cooperated. She’d loved him enough to go the distance, to fight to keep their marriage strong. But he hadn’t loved her enough to work at it with her. And he’d caused her more grief . . .
Bess put the skids on those thoughts. Counterproductive. A waste of time and of good energy. “I’m sorry, Sal, but neither of your options work for me. I can’t live in this unmarried married state of suspended animation anymore. Going ahead with the divorce is a positive step. It’s an outward reflection of inner acceptance. A commitment to growth and, regardless of how uncomfortable or painful it is, personal growth is always positive.” Let him take that rationale along as ammunition to fight Millicent Fairgate. Even she couldn’t deny Bess deserved a life as much as anyone else. “And I can’t lie—not even to save my job.”
She forced a strength into her voice she just didn’t feel. “If the truth isn’t good enough for Millicent, then fine. Let her fire me. But I will not lie to these callers by pretending to be happily married when I’m divorced.”
“You omit lots of personal details. Hell, you’ve avoided talking about your personal life for six years. Why does it have to be an issue now?”
He couldn’t be serious. She studied his expression and held off a sigh. He was. “I haven’t avoided talking about my personal life. Callers haven’t been interested. They’ve wanted to discuss their troubles, not mine. But, as you so aptly put it, I’ll soon be a divorcée counseling others on love and relationships. The press will be all over me, making my status an issue. And when they are and they do, I will not lie about it.”
Sal slid her a look ripe with warning. “Think this through. If you’re fired, you can’t help anyone. You’ll have no forum. If you omit publicly disclosing and discussing the divorce, you’ve got a shot at staying in a position to help others. What’s the difference—”
As if the press wouldn’t disclose it for her. As if she had a choice. Rationalizing, indulging in selective recall, talking without first thinking—as usual. Get a grip, Sal. Bess interrupted. “Even if the press gave me a choice—which they won’t—the difference, damn it, is that these callers trust me.”
Sal’s jaw fell slack.
Bess pushed her palms against the chair arms, then squeezed her eyes shut. Had she really just sworn at her boss? Good grief, she had!
She was losing it. After years of diligent effort at restraining herself and venting only when alone, she was losing it. So much for patience. And she could kiss off grace on this discussion too. What had gotten into her? She just didn’t do this sort of thing.
Worrying about the divorce; the disputed property settlement still hanging over her head and keeping her off-balance; her lawyer, Francine, throwing fits with monotonous regularity because Bess refused to take anything from John—as if she could and not die of humiliation—and now threats of being fired by WLUV 107.3’s prude of a shortsighted and narrow-minded matriarch owner, Millicent Fairgate. What else could go wrong?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. All bases stood covered.
Hardly a comforting thought but, on the upside, Bess was still sane. And when things couldn’t get worse then, damn it, they had to get better.
The solace in that universal truth enabled her to level her voice. “I’m sorry, Sal.”
“It’s, um, no problem.” He wasn’t trying to hide his concern anymore and, if his grim expression proved a reliable indicator, that concern had doubled.
“Listen, I understand your logic, and your intent is good. But, to me, that omission would be lying, and I won’t do it.” She raked a thumbnail over her coffee mug handle. The grating friction felt good. “I can’t.”
His silence demanded an explanation. Though she’d rather not discuss her feelings further, she supposed he deserved to hear her reasons. He would oppose Millicent firing Bess, and Millicent wouldn’t take his opposition kindly. If history proved telling, she’d retaliate. For his loyalty and heartburn in defending Bess, Sal would pay dearly, and be made darn miserable. Yes, she owed him an explanation.
Trembling, she set down her mug then grabbed a pen from the desk to have something less risky to do with her hands. “The people who call here believe in me. They feel comfortable talking with me because they know I’ll be honest with them. If I lie to them, then what have I got left?”
He groaned. “Bess, you’re taking this much too person—”
“I’d have nothing, Sal.” That pitiful truth had the back of her nose tingling, her eyes stinging. Her heart aching. “Nothing.”
Statue-still, his hands fisted in his jeans pockets, he stared at her a long minute, then blew out a sigh that reeked of frustration. “Okay.” The lines etching his face shadowed in the dim control lights, tinting his skin with a ghoulish green glow. “Okay. There’s a ninety-nine percent chance you’ll end up canned and out on your keister, but I admire your principles. I always have.” He sighed again, deeper. It lifted his chest and shoulders. “I’ll do what I can to tame the shrew and to keep her hand off the ax.”
“I appreciate it.” Bess tried but couldn’t muster a smile. Afraid her relief would show in her eyes, and she’d insult Sal by doubting his loyalty, she glanced down at her watch and checked the time. Less than a minute before she had to be back on the air.
He rolled away from the doorjamb. “How long until the divorce is final?”
“July tenth.” Her heart slid up into her throat. Never would she have dreamed this really could happen to her and John. To anyone else, yes. But not to them. She dropped her gaze. Her wedding band winked in the control’s lights, mocking her. She’d been so . . . sure.
“Three weeks.” Sal rubbed his jaw. “More or less.”
“More or less.” She knew the exact number of weeks, of days, of hours. The minutes ticked away in her mind like a bomb set to explode. But admitting that to herself, much less to Sal, proved far too revealing for her comfort and, suffering plenty enough discomfort without heaping on more, she shoved those thoughts away.
He raked a hand through his close-cropped hair. The gray-root spikes with tinted brown tips sprang out from his head. “I have to be honest here.”
Bracing herself, she hiked her chin. “Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“A divorced shrink counseling callers on love and relationships isn’t apt to sit any better with listeners than with Millicent. New Orleans is predominantly Catholic, and that’s worth remembering.”
A muscle spasmed, knotting in her neck. She kneaded at it. “I could lose some listeners, true. But if I lie, I lose a lot more.”
“What more? We’re a radio station. Listeners are everything.”
“I lose them,” she lowered her gaze to his chest, “and me.”
Sal stared at the ceiling, mumbled something she couldn’t make out, then glanced back at her. “I hate to say it, Bess, but one of us has to be less idealistic and more realistic here, and it doesn’t appear it’s going to be you.”
Considering her position realistic and reasonable, she opened her mouth to object.
He held up a hand to stay her. “Look, I admire your principles—really, I do. And far be it from me to say self-respect doesn’t hold value. But it doesn’t pay the rent. The public isn’t exactly known for being forgiving. It won’t let this divorce slide by unnoticed. You’re right. You will take heat in the press—and worse.”
Sympathy shone in his eyes. As if knowing she wouldn’t appreciate it, he let his gaze slip away, back to the ceiling. “It kills me to have to say it, but now might be a good time for you to look into setting up a private practice.”
Bess held off a frown. From the start, she’d resisted private practice, and the financial security it could bring, because the people who most needed her were those least likely to seek out counseling. She’d found her niche, her forum—the radio—and she intended to keep it. “You firing me?”
“Not yet.” His expression turned grim. “Just preparing you.”
Underneath all the bluster, he was a good man. A really good man. “Thanks.” She nodded to let him know she meant it. “Now it’s only fair that I prepare you.” She leaned forward, squared her shoulders, and looked him right in the eye. “We both know John Mystic and I have been separated six years. The piece of paper coming July tenth doesn’t change anything. Not my job performance, my credentials, or even my name. Only my legal status changes.” Risky, but she had to be totally frank. “I’ve lost all I intend to lose willingly, Sal. If Millicent wants me out of 107.3, then she’s going to have to fire me, and she’s going to have to make it stick.” Bess dipped her chin and looked up at him, forced her voice and her gaze firm and steady. “I’ll fight it every step of the way.”
Sal rubbed his stomach, as if his ulcer were acting up again. “Maybe if you fought that hard for John—”
Bess spun on him. “Don’t you dare!” Thoughtless comments were just Sal’s way. He didn’t mean them. But this time he’d hit too close to home, pegging some of her own unreasonable, irrational fears. Ones she couldn’t afford to give any value to if she expected to come out of this divorce with a fair sense of self-worth.
Sal stopped midsentence, then slid her a repentant look. “Look, I’m sorry. That was out of line.” He swallowed hard, bobbing his Adam’s apple. “I just don’t want to lose you. If you stayed married to the bastard, then I wouldn’t.”
Those kinds of remarks were expected to entice her? Bess swallowed a response so searing it set her temples to pounding. “I don’t want to be lost either, but don’t say things like that about John and me. You don’t know how things were with us, and it’s unfair of you to judge him or me.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Sal shrugged and his face turned red. “I guess I just want this whole sordid mess to . . . to go away.”
So did she. “That isn’t going to happen.” Once she’d thought it might, that John would ask her to come home, but she’d accepted the truth a long time ago. He had no intention of trying to save their marriage. He didn’t love her, and that was the sorry truth.
A painful ache shimmied through her chest. She clenched her muscles against it. Some dreams die so darn hard.
She checked her watch—ten seconds—grabbed the mike, then put a manicured fingertip on the tape player’s eject button. “I’m out of time and I’ve got four lines lit up. If you’ll excuse me, duty calls.”
Looking pensive, dejected, and truly sorry, Sal lumbered out of the booth.
When he closed the door behind him, Bess started shaking, rattled from the bone out. Would she ever stop shaking again? Would her life ever be right again?
Never let ’em see you sweat, kid. Her father’s voice sounded in her head.
A hornets’ nest of guilt stirred in her stomach. I’m trying, Dad. I’m really trying. But it hurts and it’s hard. I loved him so much. She pulled in a deep breath, counted to three, then answered the first caller.
The next four calls were tame; normal problems she’d faced before, countless times. Taking a sip of coffee so strong and bitter it had to have been steeping since dusk, she grimaced, then answered the fifth. “Love 107.3. This is Bess.”
Her married name? Bess frowned. She’d never used her married name on the air. “Dr. Cameron,” she told the caller. “But I prefer Bess.”
“My name is Tony.”
Something in his voice unnerved her. Not the tone—nothing so mundane as that, though it was gravelly and odd. It was something . . . inexplicable. And it created the strangest sensations in her. As if he could see inside her, and he knew all her secrets . . . and more.
The little hairs on her neck stood on edge. She put her cup down on the desk. Shaking even harder, she laced her fingers, rested her hands in her lap, then chided herself for being ridiculous. No one could literally see inside anyone else. They could perceive, interpret, intuit, but not see. “What can I do for you, Tony?”
“I’ve heard a rumor.”
Warning flags flashed before her eyes. Warning flags gained by developing strong instincts that came with phone-counseling for over half a decade. Warnings she’d come to respect. Sight and physical observation, two very important tools to every psychologist, radio-counseling denied her. She’d had to compensate and her instincts, bless them, had done so for her, honing with experience to acutely perceptive. And, right now, those acutely perceptive instincts screamed that this wasn’t a harmless, or a typical, call. That it carried serious repercussions and consequences—to Bess. And, worse, that no matter how depleted she felt right now, she couldn’t retreat and regroup or run from them.
Her mouth drier than dust, she mustered her most professional voice. “Rumors are dangerous. Usually destructive.” She paused to let that sink in. “Are you destructive, Tony, or does this rumor personally affect you?”
“No, I’m not destructive, and this affects me only in the broadest sense.” He sounded uncomfortable. “But it is extremely important—enough to warrant this call.”
“I see.” Dread dragged at her belly. “Well, if the rumor is ‘extremely important to you,’ then you should attempt to verify it. Try to be open-minded. Strive equally hard to prove, and to disprove, the rumor. To come out of something like this with a clean conscience, it’s imperative you be fair—and, if possible, you find out the truth without inflicting harm on anyone else.” She automatically lifted her cup, but shook too badly to hold it. Hot coffee sloshed over the rim and scalded her hand. She bit her lip to keep from crying out, and ordered herself to get her nerves under control.
“I don’t want anyone hurt. That’s why I’m calling you.”
This time, his tone was a dead giveaway. He wasn’t being honest, and yet she innately knew he wasn’t lying. The truth rested at some obscure place in between. “I see.” She rubbed at her temple, not seeing at all. Maybe she was overreacting. Maybe he just needed a place to vent. She definitely needed to calm down. “I suppose then we’d better talk about this.”
“Only if you’re sure. This rumor affects you, Dr. Mystic.”
A sense of doom blanketed the dread, and Bess dragged in a deep breath. How could a rumor about her be extremely important to him? She didn’t even know him. Should she disconnect him?
Though sorely tempted, her instincts warned her against it. Warned her that this call was inevitable.
The pounding at her temples grew to a sickening throb. No, as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t play ostrich and bury her head in the sand. Whatever was coming had to be faced. Hadn’t she advised that very action to caller after caller? “If it’s important, then go ahead, Tony.”
“You’re getting a divorce.”
Bess swallowed a gasp, then a groan. Good grief. Not a question, a statement.
Sal shoved open the booth door. Wild-eyed, he swiped his hand back and forth across his neck, mouthing, “Don’t answer! Cut him off! Cut him off!”
Blinking hard and fast, Bess broke into a cold sweat. It had been just a matter of time until word got out, but she should have had three more weeks and now, because of this Tony, she’d been cheated out of them. She resented that. Boy, did she resent it. Wasn’t the divorce itself hard enough?
Sal grabbed her shoulder. “Cut him off!”
Bess reached over to the phone and touched a fingertip to the button. She tried, but she couldn’t press it down. She just couldn’t do it. Sliding Sal an apologetic look, she spoke into the mike. “This rumor is true, Tony. I am getting a divorce.”
Sal muttered a curse, stomped out into the hallway, then slammed the door shut.
“I’m sensing your resentment and a little hostility, Dr. Mystic. There’s no need for it, or for fear. I didn’t call to give you a hard time.”
He sensed it? Mystic. Not Cameron. Again. He hadn’t forgotten, but deliberately had used John’s name. Why? Bess frowned. Was John behind this? That would be atypical, true. She’d left him for neglect. It seemed highly unlikely he’d remember he had a wife now. And besides, this Tony seemed . . . sincere. Oddly pervasive, extremely perceptive, unwelcomely intrusive, but sincere.
Still, her instincts were good, not perfect. Was he sincere? Or was he setting her up for a fall? “If not to give me a hard time, why then are you calling?”
“To dispel the rumor.”
A setup. “Well, now you have.” Bess lifted a finger to disconnect the line.
“Wait! Don’t hang up!”
Bess jerked back, stared at the phone as if it were possessed. How had he known she’d been about to disconnect him? Could he sense and see her? She darted a glance around the booth, uneasy. No one around. Nothing amiss. So why didn’t the impression subside? Why did she feel watched, observed—almost invaded? Absurd. If this hadn’t happened so soon after the confrontation with Sal, if she’d had a few minutes to recoup and regain her balance, it wouldn’t be happening.
“I called to tell you something too, Dr. Mystic.”
Totally unraveled and fighting it, Bess chastised herself for letting her imagination run crazy. There was nothing unusual at work here, or about this call. There couldn’t be. Tony likely worked at the courthouse and saw her divorce proceedings on the docket schedule, or something equally mundane and ordinary. There had to be a simple, logical reason prompting his call. Had to be. “I’m listening.”
“My situation is hopeless. But yours isn’t. Just don’t lose hope, Doc. As long as there’s life, there’s hope.”
As sincere as a summer sky. Concern. Empathy. Approval. All those feelings flooded through the phone from Tony to her. The back of her nose stung and tears burned her eyes. She swallowed a knot of raw emotion. “I appreciate your concern, Tony, but my purpose here is to give help, not to rec—”
“You’re hearing, but you’re not listening. You’ve used your training and skills to help a lot of people. Now, you have to help you.” He paused, then went on. “I know you sense what I’m telling you is more than just words, Doc, but sensing alone isn’t enough. You’ve got to really feel it. To do something.”
Bess did sense it, just as she sensed there was something unique about his voice, and that frightened her into denying she felt anything at all. Seeing Sal standing outside the booth’s window in the hallway, she shrugged, feigning ignorance. His frown deepened.
She looked down at the mike, puzzled. What did Tony mean? Really feel it. Do something? About what? Exactly what was he up to—and why was he up to anything regarding her? Who was he? And what convinced her he wasn’t a nut case? She’d had her fair share of them around here. Yet she’d bet her life Tony wasn’t one of them.
As well as she knew she sat in the New Orleans booth, she knew he could feel all she felt, could hear all she heard. He knew all she knew—and she knew he still approved of her.
Bizarre. Intimidating. And violating. He had no right to invade her this way. Again she considered disconnecting him and ending the call.
Don’t do it, Doc. Please. I want to help you.
Bess sat straight up. Tony’s voice. Tony’s “Doc.” But not over the phone—mentally! What in the world was happening here?
She stared at the phone, stunned.
She darted a look back over her shoulder at Sal. His frown hadn’t altered a bit; he clearly hadn’t heard anything. Tony had conversed with Bess telepathically? But they were strangers. They couldn’t be that closely linked mentally. Telepathy cases—
The sensation of something mystical happening sluiced through her. Bess’s stomach flip-flopped. Pressing a hand against it, she denied the possibility, and fought the urge to protect herself by ducking into a dark corner. Her instincts had gone haywire. Besides, she couldn’t run or hide. When something occurs inside your mind, where can you go?
She took a deep breath and then answered him. “Okay, Tony. I’m trying to really feel what you’re telling me.” She meant it and, if her voice lacked an ounce of courage, at least it carried the weight of her conviction.
You’re welcome. She thought by rote, then gasped, surprised. They were communicating telepathically!
“Sometimes hope alone isn’t enough.” He dropped his voice to just above a whisper. “Sometimes you have to leap upon a mystic tide and have faith the sand will shift and an island will appear.”
His words slammed into Bess. An odd tingle started at the base of her spine then slithered up her back. A mystic tide. Shifting sands, an island . . .
A metallic taste filled her mouth and a surge of anticipation she hadn’t felt since before she and John had separated suffused her.
Mental communications, verbal puzzles. What was this man, some kind of psychic? “Tony?” Her voice cracked. She swallowed then tried again. “What do you mean?”
“Think about my message, Doc. Just think about it.”
The line went dead.
Bess stared at the unlit button, wishing she could bring Tony back, wishing she could force him to explain. She tried silently asking him to return. But if he heard her, he chose not to respond. Instead, his message echoed through her mind, again and again, always ending with think about it.
For the remainder of her shift, Bess thought about it. During commercials, she studied on it, intrigued by Tony, and more by the message itself. But by the end of her program, Bess wasn’t intrigued anymore. She couldn’t not think about Tony’s message. And it no longer intrigued. Now, it haunted.
And, for some reason that escaped her entirely, she had the strongest urge to—of all things—call John.
Ridiculous. Since she had filed for the legal separation two years ago, they’d only talked through their respective attorneys. John would believe her, but that was beside the point. The point was that Tony’s call and message were driving her nuts. Fuel on the turmoil fire in what had become her complicated life.
How had this happened to her? She’d been so careful. So darn careful.
Too much was happening too quickly that couldn’t be rationally or logically explained. And, as hard as it was for her to admit it, to get through it, she needed someone.
Oh, she could come up with her own solutions, but it sure would be nice to have a friendly sounding board. She obviously couldn’t talk with John, or with her Yorkie, Silk. Her friend, Miguel, was out. He’d react to her telling him about the telepathy experience with Tony about as if she’d announced aliens were invading the White House. Who could she trust? Who wouldn’t think she’d lost her mind?
Knowing the perfect listeners, Bess snatched up her purse from the bottom desk drawer, then headed down 107.3’s long hallway, toward the exit sign and outside door. She’d talk to T. J. and Maggie MacGregor.
* * *
“Shut up, darling.”
Sassy, sparkling, very pregnant, dressed in forest green, and clutching a box of saltine crackers, Maggie MacGregor sidled up to her giant of a world-class artist husband, T. J., then pecked a chaste kiss to his chin.
“Maggie.” His warning tone echoed through the cavernous riverfront art gallery they’d bought right after they’d married.
She wrinkled her nose at him, then turned toward Bess. “Ignore him. The man loves earning redemption points to stay in my good graces.” Maggie shrugged, but her eyes danced with mischief, then went serious. “Okay, I agree. The job being threatened makes the divorce pill even more bitter to swallow.”
“Darn right it does.” Bess grunted and snatched a cracker. The cellophane wrapper crackled.
Maggie shifted the box of saltines then squeezed Bess’s arm. “I know this doesn’t make a bit of sense, but will you please just humor me and look at the painting?”
Standing toward the rear of the remodeled warehouse, Bess barely resisted an urge to roll her gaze up Lakeview Gallery’s long, white columns to its equally white high ceiling. “Maggie, you know I adore you, but I’ve just humored you twice before today by staring at that seascape, and all I’ve gotten for my trouble is crossed eyes.” Bess slid an apologetic glance toward T. J., who’d painted it. “Nothing personal.”
He nodded, looking a little amused.
She scanned the sculptures, the paintings lining the walls, then looked back at Maggie. “I’m a little worried about all this stuff I’ve been telling you—seriously, you have to agree that my life’s a cesspool right now—and, frankly, I’m not in much of a humoring mood.”
“I’m sympathetic, Bess. Honest. But would you just trust me and do it?”
Bess lifted a hand toward the painting on the wall—T. J.’s masterpiece, according to Maggie—but held her gaze on her friend. “Frankly, I don’t see why you’re so enamored with it.” Bess inwardly groaned at that less than diplomatic remark, then cast T. J. another apologetic look. “No offense, T. J., but in my opinion some of your other works are much more powerful.”
“None taken.” He looped a strong arm around Maggie’s shoulders. “But you might as well give in, or my darling wife will resort to blackmail next.”
“Maggie?” Bess guffawed. “She wouldn’t.”
“She would.” Digging into the box, Maggie pulled out a cracker, lifted her chin, then crunched down on it. “I’ve already lost five dollars on this ordeal of yours. We heard Tony’s call and I bet MacGregor here,” she lifted her elbow to brush against T. J.’s ribs, “you’d come over to talk about this right away. He bet you’d fight it alone and come after work.”
“So you lost a bet. That’s not my fault.” Bess smoothed her rumpled beige crepe skirt, then flicked at a cracker crumb on her lemon silk sleeve.
“The heck it isn’t. If you were a tad less stubborn, friend, he’d owe me the five.” Grunting, Maggie swiped her hands together, ridding them of cracker crumbs. “No options can be ignored in a bet with MacGregor—not even a little friendly blackmail.” She pointed to the painting. “Now quit stalling—remember my delicate condition—and just look at it.”
“All right, all right.” Bess frowned. “But I have to say that you using this pregnancy as an excuse for being contrary is wearing thin.”
“Amen to that.” T. J. crossed his arms over his chest, rumpling his red-plaid shirt.
Maggie slid him a killer glare, then grunted. “You adore me, MacGregor, and if you don’t start helping me out here, I’m going to have to get drastic. Maybe even cry.
“Oh, hell.” He turned to Bess. “If our friendship ever meant anything to you, please, look at the painting. When Madam Prego gets wound up—”
“Would you two quit teasing here?” Bess propped her hands on her hips. “I’m telling you that this Tony guy was weird. What he said was weird. And what he knew went beyond weird and launched straight into spooky. It wasn’t normal.”
She squeezed her eyes shut, cursed the tremor in her voice, then looked back at her friends. “Ordinarily, I love your banter, but I’m dying here. Between the divorce, Millicent threatening to fire me, and this weird stuff with Tony haunting me every waking minute, I’ve maxed out.” The words she’d been trained from the cradle never to utter, never to admit even to herself, poured out of her mouth. “I need . . . help.”
The teasing light faded from Maggie’s eyes, left them riddled with worry and with something else . . . hope? Yes. But hope for what? And, why was Bess’s looking at the Seascape Inn painting so important to Maggie? It was important—Bess’s intuition hummed it.
“Just look at it, Bess,” Maggie said. “Please. Just do it.”
Bess gave in and looked at the canvas. It was just a house. A huge gray Victorian with stark white shutters, sitting atop an oceanside cliff. A common turret and widow’s walk, a typical front porch that stretched end to end across the bottom floor. Pretty, but just a house.
“There.” Bess looked back at Maggie. “I did it. Satisfied?”
“No,” Maggie said sharply. “Really look at it.”
Really feel it, Tony had said. Now, really look at it from a desperate-sounding Maggie. Apprehensive with the similarity, Bess wheeled her gaze to T. J. Stone-faced, he nodded and, no less apprehensive but certain now that something weird was occurring, Bess stifled a shudder and forced her focus back to the painting.
Sometimes hope alone isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to leap upon a mystic tide and have faith the sand will shift and an island will appear.
Her heart hammered, thudding against her ribs, and she whispered on a brush of breath, “Tony?”
The painting seemed to come to life. The scent of its pines wafted over her and the cool sea spray crashing against its cliffs gathered on her heated skin. The gull flying through the fog in its misty sky cawed in sync with its ocean’s rhythmic roar. Bess scanned the horizon. Her stomach rocking with the white-capped waves, she cruised with them to the shore, then up the steep and craggy granite cliffs. She let her gaze linger on the house itself, on its graceful turret, and on the narrow widow’s walk that aroused such intense emotion in her, tears stung her eyes. She then looked on, to the attic room just under the eaves, and the cryptic sensation grew stronger.
The temperature plummeted.
An icy veil of a chill shivered up her spine.
And all the tension and pressure and strain she’d been feeling inside shattered.
Warm heat, energy as pure and tranquilizing as summer sun, seeped-into her pores, and liquid, flowing sensations of peace and comfort and contentment spread through her, limb to limb, until she felt calm and at ease.
“How . . . odd,” she mumbled. Absurd. Ridiculous. Impossible.
Awed, Bess sucked in a wisp of a gasp. She’d never felt so empowered, so satisfied, such sheer joy in just being alive.
T. J. gave Maggie’s arm a gentle squeeze. “That was it, honey. She had to admit she needed help.”
Maggie pressed a fingertip over her lips. “Shh!”
He lowered his voice to a barely discernible whisper and eased toward the back room. “I’ll call the airline and Miss Hattie.”
Why did T. J. need to phone their friend from Maine and the airline now? How could he bear to miss experiencing this? Bess wanted to ask him, but the lure of the painting . . . She couldn’t look away. Why hadn’t she noted before its raw power, its soothing majesty? How could she ever have looked at this and felt it anything but magnificent?
Gingerly, as if being careful not to obstruct her view, Maggie stepped to Bess’s side. “You don’t want this divorce, do you, Bess?”
Captivated, she mumbled the truth. “It’s inevitable.”
“But is it what you want?”
“Does it matter? It’s going to happen. Acceptance is positive growth.” Bess’s focus remained fixed on the canvas. “You know, Maggie, I look at this, and all my problems, even the divorce, seem insignificant. It’s almost as if it’s touched by . . . magic.”
“You feel healed.”
Bess smiled, spared Maggie a glance. “That’s it exactly.”
A look of empathy, of understanding, and—unless Bess mistook it—of relief flashed through Maggie’s eyes. Relief seemed rather peculiar.
“You need a vacation,” Maggie murmured. “Time away to just let go and to get things into perspective.”
That sounded like heaven. And, looking at this house, possible. “Yes.” The magnetism proved stronger than her will and Bess again mentally drifted into T. J.’s masterpiece. When her gaze lit on the turret room, certainty rippled through her heart. “More than anything else, I want to go there.” It had been so long since she’d felt at peace. Six long years . . .
“Marvelous.” Maggie sighed contentedly, stepped between Bess and the painting, then rested her arms on her distended belly.
Bess blinked, feeling almost as if she’d been under a spell and it’d been broken. That healed feeling disappeared, and she wanted it back. Desperately. “It is a real place, isn’t it?” An anxious fear that it might not be gripped her.
“Oh, yes.” Maggie nodded. “It’s real. It’s the bed-and-breakfast T. J. and I visit in Sea Haven Village, Maine. Seascape Inn.”
“Your friend, Miss Hattie?”
Maggie nodded. “She’s the innkeeper.”
Bess’s mouth felt stone dry. She licked at her lips. “I can’t explain this, Maggie. I know it’s going to sound crazy, but I have to go there. Now. Today.”
“You don’t have to explain—not to me.” Maggie smiled. “T. J.’s making arrangements for you right now.”
Bess vaguely remembered T. J. saying something about him calling Miss Hattie. How had he known?
Maggie cocked her head. A frown creased the smooth skin between her brows and she glanced off into space as if she were listening to something only she could hear. Seconds passed, and the strangest expression formed on her face. Worried, Bess clasped Maggie’s arm. “Are you okay? Is it the baby?”
“No, no. We’re fine.” She patted her stomach, a fleeting smile touching her lips.
Despite her assurance, something concerned Maggie; it shone in her eyes. “I’m getting the strongest feeling that you’re protecting me. I don’t need that from you. Now, be honest. Are you two okay?”
“We’re fine. I promise. It’s, um, about Seascape Inn.” Maggie brushed her gleaming red hair back from her face, clearly avoiding Bess’s eyes. “When you get there, you might, um, see a man in an old Army uniform—one with a yellow carnation here in his lapel.” She touched a fingertip to her dress, just above her left breast.
A shudder rippled up Bess’s backbone. Why did this disclosure strike her as significant as Tony’s message? “Okay.”
“Trust him,” Maggie said. “He’s trying to help you.”
“This has something to do with the painting.” Certainty flooded Bess. “That’s why you had me look at it before. You were hoping then—” Bess drew in a sharp breath. “This man—he’s the reason this strange stuff is happening now, isn’t he?”
Her wariness alerted Bess. “Is there something . . . different about him?”
Looking as guilty as sin, Maggie shrugged, stepped back to the tall column behind her, then sat down on the padded bench circling it. “To some. But I—I don’t think I’m supposed to say anything more, Bess. Just trust him, okay?”
“You’re sounding as weird as Tony.”
“I know.” Maggie grimaced, rubbed at her stomach, and rotated her swollen ankles. “Can you just trust me, too?”
For a long minute, Bess stared at her friend, not sure what to make of all this. But considering every aspect of her life lay in shambles already, what did she have to lose? “Why not? I always have.”
Maggie swallowed and stilled, again as if listening. “Bess,” she said, “I know this is stretching the bounds of friendship, but you might . . . ” Her voice trailed.
“Might what?” Lord, but she hated to see Maggie distressed—
especially in her condition. The baby was due in November, just five months away.
She turned away. “You might hear the man without actually seeing him.”
A bolt of fear rocketed through Bess. Tingling head to heel, she stiffened her shoulders and stared hard at Maggie’s narrow back. “Is he telepathic?” Tony was telepathic. Was there a connection?
“Sort of.” Maggie looked back over her shoulder at Bess. “You’ve nothing to fear from him, though. Honest. If I thought for a second you did, I’d tell you.”
Nervous. Evasive. Cryptic. So unlike Maggie MacGregor. “What aren’t you telling me?”
She looked back in front of her, toward the white-carpeted floor. “It’s . . . complicated.”
Complicated. Well, that was comforting. “This man,” Bess gave her instincts free rein. “He’s not like us, is he?” Speaking her feelings aloud had her skin prickling.
Maggie twisted her lips and shifted on her feet, clearly uneasy. “If I say no, will you change your mind about going to Seascape?”
“No,” Bess insisted with absolute certainty. The pull for those good feelings tugged more mightily than anything she could imagine. Nothing would keep her from going to Seascape Inn. “There’s something special there, luring me. I have to see what it is.” She couldn’t explain her feelings fully; she didn’t understand them herself. But the sense of mystery, of urgency, of irresistible allure was there, and so strong. It oddly promised that at Seascape Inn she could do what she hadn’t been able to do here: sort through the remnants of her life and plan her future—a future without John.
“No, then,” Maggie said softly. “He’s not like us.”
Bess had known it. But knowing and hearing it confirmed were two different things. Gooseflesh raised on her arms and she had the hardest time catching her breath. “Does this man have a name?”
“Yes, of course. But—”
T. J. breezed into the show room. “You’re all set, Bess. Miss Hattie’s expecting you.”
“Great.” Bess glanced at Maggie and, seeing the lines of tension creasing her brow, backed off. Mystical events occurring or not, extra stress during pregnancy was bad for Maggie and the baby. If she said that this—whatever this proved to be—was all right, then certainly it would prove exactly that. “You can relax, Prego. No more questions. I said I’d trust you, and I will.”
Maggie slumped against T. J. in obvious relief. “Thanks.”
Bess smiled, kissed Maggie on the cheek, then stretched up to place a peck on T. J.’s jaw. When she drew back, she stared at him, long and hard. “For you, I have one question. How did you know I’d be going to Seascape before I knew I’d be going to Seascape?”
His mouth dropped open, but no sound came out. He gave Maggie an inquisitive glance then, clearly not liking her nonverbal response, he returned a worried gaze to Bess. “Just a guess.”
“Hmmm.” Something told her not to push. And she decided to go with it. T. J. too had earned her respect and trust. “As it turned out, a darn good one.”
“Appears so.” Conspicuously happy to be off the hot seat, he grinned. “Your tickets are at the airport reception desk. American. Three o’clock flight.”
“I’d better hurry, then.” She moved toward the gallery’s entrance door.
“Bess,” Maggie raised her voice to be heard, “Don’t forget to phone Francine. She said you’ve been ducking her calls, and she needs to talk with you. It’s urgent.”
“With Francine, it’s always urgent.” Bess paused at the glass front door. “Thanks,” her gratitude stuck in her throat, “for everything.”
“Be careful, okay?” Maggie had that worried gleam in her eye again.
It warned Bess what she didn’t know could hurt her. Still, on looking at the painting, those good feelings had been so strong. Once she got to Seascape, things would settle out okay; she just knew it. She waved, then left Lakeview Gallery.
The bell on the door still tinkling in the back rooms, Maggie watched Bess disappear beyond the tinted-glass windows at the end of the riverfront walkway.
T. J. joined her. Looking out through the glass onto the busy street, he grimaced. “Think she’ll call Francine?”
“Nope.” Maggie looked up at her husband, her eyes shining. “But finally Tony’s interceding.”
T. J. rubbed their noses. “Did you tell her about him?”
Maggie ran her fingertips up and down the soft placket of his plaid shirt, between the second and third buttons. “Not exactly.”
“Honey, you should have told her. Remember how you reacted to Tony? He scared the bejesus out of you.”
He had. He’d gotten MacGregor’s attention too. Cranky because he failed to mention that fact, she lifted her chin. “I hinted.”
He looked at her with too-seeing eyes. “Okay, ’fess up. Why didn’t you tell her?”
Maggie snuggled against him. “Worrying about Tony drew us together. I figured—”
“Matchmaking.” T. J. grunted and clasped her shoulders. “I should have known. You’re as bad as Miss Hattie.”
“Miss Hattie’s an angel, and you know it.”
“Did I say she wasn’t?”
“No, but you sure implied it. You sounded perfectly snotty, MacGregor, and you know I like snotty about as much as I like nagging.”
“Facts are facts, honey. Have you forgotten those seventeen possibles she tried pairing me up with?”
“Not hardly. But she didn’t know then you were there waiting for me.”
“Point is, she still tried.”
“Shut up, darling.”
“Maggie.” He leveled her with a warning look.
She snorted, not at all intimidated. “All right, MacGregor. So maybe I should have told Bess about Tony.” She rubbed her nose against the side of his neck and whispered close to the shell of his ear. “But you’ve got to admit, we had some—”
“We had lots of,” he agreed, then kissed her hard. When he lifted his head, he looked dreamy-eyed. “But you’re forgetting a couple of minor details.”
Maggie lowered her hands from his broad shoulders to his waist, then looped her arms around him and scooted closer, until they stood belly to thigh. “Like what?”
“For one, John and Bess are divorcing. As in, they don’t want to be married to each other anymore. And, for another, they’re not divorced yet. Bess isn’t going to get involved with another man while she’s still married to John.”
“She’s been involved with that yachter.”
“Miguel Santos?” MacGregor grunted. “Come on, Maggie. Don’t fall for gossip. They’re just friends.”
Maggie shrugged, then shot a worried look at the painting. “Bess is still crazy about John. She doesn’t say it—she never has. But when I asked if she wanted the divorce, she said it was inevitable. Not that she wanted it. They belong together, MacGregor. I feel it down to my bones. Maybe that’s what Tony’s doing—stopping the divorce.”
“Maybe. Or maybe it’s not supposed to stop. Maybe Tony’s helping them get through the divorce so they can move on with their lives.”
It could be they were supposed to divorce. Not everyone who visited Seascape Inn discovered, or rediscovered, love. “Maybe,” she agreed. “But I sure hope not.”
“Bess has been under a lot of stress. I think you should have warned her about Tony.”
“I couldn’t.” Maggie backed away then turned from the window.
She sighed her impatience. “Geez, think about it, MacGregor. Bess hasn’t made the connection between Tony and Seascape Inn yet. She believes Tony is telepathic, which doesn’t scare her witless. But she will make the connection. And when she does—aside from trying to convince you I need a long vacation at a quiet sanatorium—how do you figure she’ll react to me advising her to trust a ghost?”
Clean Reads Hardcover Edition: Thorndike Press: